Much of the land for the early settlement of Cranston, then known as Pawtuxet, was bought by Roger Williams from the Narragansetts in 1638 as part of the Pawtuxet Purchase. The first white settler was Stephen Arnold, father of Benedict Arnold, who became the first governor of Rhode Island under the 1663 Charter.

Early settlers were farmers, but the eighteenth century economy would mirror Rhode Island’s blossoming into America's first bastion of industrial growth. The rushing rivers fueled the textile industry and sprung Cranston into the American Industrial Revolution shortly after Samuel Slater opened the first factory along the Blackstone River in Pawtucket.

Slater’s innovations led to the opening of a small cotton mill owned by Samuel Sprague, a Rhode Island governor, and forge it into one of the country’s textile empires. His company would eventually become Cranston Print Works, which expanded into factories in Massachusetts and North Carolina.

Before the Civil War, Cranston was known for a notorious legal case that still informs the state’s criminal law. John Gordon, a Roman Catholic Irish immigrant, was executed in the beating murder of Amasa Sprague, a wealthy Yankee mill owner.  

Gordon’s conviction came amid the anti-immigrant hysteria that led to the Know Nothing Party taking control of Rhode Island government. The judge in the case told jurors to give greater weight to testimony from Yankee witnesses than Irish witnesses.

Several years after Gordon’s hanging, the state abolished the death-penalty. The case has lived through the ages in the state’s historical and legal psyche. Any time death penalty legislation has appeared at the General Assembly, Gordon’s fate is recalled. His 1844 execution remains the last time the death penalty has been imposed in the state. In 2010, the Assembly approved a resolution that posthumously pardoned Gordon. Then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee issued a pardon the next year.

Immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Sweden flocked to textile jobs in such villages as Knightsville and Eden Park, once known as Sweden park. After the construction of the Interstate highways after World War II, the city became a bedroom community for Providence. The immigrant families who were raised in triple-deckers in the capital city thronged to Cranston’s developments of single-family homes with leafy backyards.

This fueled a population jump from about 47,000 in 1940 to about 73,000 by 1980.

Cranston was once a Republican redoubt; the city didn’t support a Democrat for president until John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign that made him the first Catholic president.

In the 20th Century, Cranston provided a passel of Republican candidates for high office. Cranston mayors, including Jimmy DiPrete, Jim Taft and Edward DiPrete were all GOP governor candidates, with Ed DiPrete winning three campaigns. That continued into the 21st. The current mayor, Allan Fung, was twice the GOP candidate for governor, losing to Democrat Gina Raimondo.

More recently the city has also spawned top Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Nick Mattiello and U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, the state’s most durable politician. In recent presidential elections, the city has supported every Democratic candidate since the 1988 campaign of Mike Dukakis.

Yet, Cranston’s political diversity lingers. Sen. Josh Miller, a liberal Democrat, has long represented a district anchored by Edgewood, a village overlooking Narragansett Bay near Providence’s Roger Williams Park. Conventional wisdom, Miller says, is that you can chart the city’s political ideology from east to west. The communities closer to Providence and the bay are more Democratic and liberal than the rural parts of the city west of Route 295. Miller’s solidly progressive district is a contrast to the western district held by Mattiello, which voted for Donald Trump by a healthy margin in 2016.

Some elements to watch as the days dwindle until the election is what impact early voting and heavy mail balloting will augur. Another is the increase in Black and Latino voters who have recently moved to such neighborhoods as Edgewood and the Friendly Community.

This year, in our One Square Mile project, we go to Cranston, to explore the issues driving this particularly polarized election year through the stories and experiences of the voters. Read more... 

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday morning at 6:45, 8:45 and at 5:44 in the afternoon.